excerpt from

How Did She Survive?

by John Fuller


A young adult novel about conflicting visions of true justice for survivors of sexual assault.

Please Note: This is unpublished material, but it is still protected by copyright.
No use without my permission.

Chapter 1

Tuesday — Back from the Dead

The worst part of an open-coffin funeral is that it proves your grandma’s gone. Up until then, there’s hope.

Everybody comes up and says stupid things about your disaster. Can’t they imagine how it sounds to tell me Grandma’s in a better place? Heaven’s nowhere near as good as our kitchen.

For three days, her bedroom’s been sitting here, the way she left it. Well, I did make the bed. She wouldn’t want anybody seeing her sheets. She was funny that way.

My dad can’t even go in her room.

When I write this:

) - - -

) - - - -

It’s tears while I curl up for a minute.

We’re saving every cent we can without Grandma’s paycheck, but Dad bought take-out for dinner to make me feel better. It doesn’t work, but at least we don’t say anything for a while. We just chew next to her empty chair.

“I love you, Wendell,” Dad says out of nowhere. I start crying like a first-grader, and Dad picks my fists up from the table and holds them in his hands. Then he starts crying, too. Neither of us has any idea what to do now. I don’t how to use his love without her love underneath everything. He’s a good dad; I just never leaned on him.

He hugged me for a while and I got all gross crying. When I headed upstairs, Dad was filling the kitchen sink with soapy water. My snot messed up his work shirt. He’s only got two.

I’m on grandma’s bed now. I hear Dad crying downstairs. I should tell him everything is going to be okay, but I can’t lie. Not about this.

Grandma isn’t even his ma. She’s my mom’s mother. Mom’s never getting out of prison. Grandma said it might be best for everyone if she just made a little life in there. That’s the only time I remember Grandma really crying.

Tomorrow, I’ll do Grandma’s laundry and box some things up. Seeing her bus-driving jacket on the hook makes me cry, so that’s going. I’ll tie grandma’s pillow in a garbage bag so it never loses its smell.

Wednesday — E_____ Has Her Back

Today, I kept my promise and went to school, and it was actually nice just to have some normal noises around me. Nobody asked me about my grandma, not even Des and Halen. Everyone in the school was busy talking about somebody else.

This girl named K_____ had gotten raped over the summer, and accused Derek, a popular senior. It’s not the first time rumors have swarmed around him for attacking girls. Last April, this new girl, E_____, moved here from Georgia. She was a junior, and Derek hit on her right away. Soon they were going out, and then she missed a week of school. By the time she came back everybody knew he was the reason.

Anyway, K_____ pressed charges against Derek a few weeks ago. There was a short article about it in the paper, “Honor Roll Student Accused of Assault” with a subtitle underneath of, “Underage victim waited 72 hours to report the alleged crime.” After that long, there wasn’t any medical evidence they could use.

I guess yesterday afternoon, the cops officially announced they wouldn’t be pursuing the case against Derek.

K_____ is a tough girl. She can be kind of mean, and she never takes crap from anybody — or she didn’t, anyway. Today, her eyes looked like every sound hurt. She obviously needed sleep. You could tell she was super wound-up below the surface. A couple of times she hurried out of class without the pass. I asked her if she was okay, and she treated me like I was her rapist. If even offering help makes her mad, I don’t know how she expects to move beyond what happened and get back to normal.

I would be so ashamed if people talked about me the way they’re talking about her. Having my weakness right out there in public. At least E_____ stood next to her pretty much the whole today, even though going to K_____’s classes meant missing three of her own. Seniors have to bring in a note from a parent when they miss a class.

Then I told her about K_____, and Derek, and E_____. About passing through the halls bright with gossip-whispers. Some of what I said to Grandma was out loud. Some was ESP, thoughts I can’t think of anyone to tell, not even Des and Halen. I told them Grandma died, but just barely. I would have just cried if I told all of it, and I didn’t want them to sit there feeling bad for me with no way to help.

I couldn’t have said it to my real Grandma, but I told Grandma’s spirit the good thing about K______’s troubles was that it kept people from noticing how sad I was that she died. I only missed one day of school, so no-one really cared. Derek, who usually hassles me at least a bit every day, was riding too high with his boys after the big news from the cops.

I wish K_____ could have met her. Maybe she could ask my Grandma how you get strong again. How to stop biting people’s heads off when they were just trying their best to help.

Thursday — Back in Time

Today was the first day of school. When I came downstairs at 7, I saw Dad asleep on the couch, and I woke him up in a panic. I was scared he was late for work. When you’re on parole, you can’t do anything wrong at all. Dad said he had a rough night,” nd the garage was letting him work the noon-to-eight shift.

I asked if I could stay home, and he said yes, but I would have to go tomorrow. He was asleep again before the milk was on my cereal. Things were way too quiet while I ate, but hearing his breathing in the living-room kept back the haunted creeps I knew I would receive if I was by myself.

When Dad left for the garage, I spent an hour in Grandma’s room neatening up. I couldn’t believe all the things she thought it was okay to leave in the middle of. Her book was opened flat on the bedside table. One and a half Chips-Ahoys lay stalely on a saucer. There was a brown ring halfway down the inside of Grandma’s Pikachu mug, but the coffee had evaporated down to one quarter.

I was going along just fine working, but all at once I lost every scrap of wanting to do more, so I plopped down in her comfy chair. I decided to talk to Grandma about everything — out loud at first, but when I started crying, I had to clamp my eyes shut and switch to ESP.

It seemed mean to say her funeral was bad, so I just liked who was there, and described the food. Questions about heaven seemed stupid since I knew she wasn’t really going to answer.

Grandma always asked about “Sulu and Scotty", meaning my best friends, even though Des’s people used to be from Korea, and Halen’s ma is Irish with a real accent. Grandma called me Spock, not because I’m all that Spocky, just Spock was her favorite. It’s only a week since she saw them, so there wasn’t a ton to fill her in on.

I spent the day doing laundry and sleeping. I bet nursery school was the last time I took two naps in one day.

When I woke up the second time, I felt a lot better. There was twenty minutes before I needed to cook dinner, so I got paper towels and some Windex and cleaned the dust off the things on Grandma’s dresser: some pill bottles, little knick-knacks, lipsticks, candles, mind-lifting quotes in frames.

In the top left-hand drawer were a lot of rolled up nylon stockings, and three belts. The right-hand drawer was full of giant panties, except at the back I found a jewelry box. Inside was a flat velvety pillow-thing with a couple dozen rings I recognized pressed into little slots. From the underside of the lid hung several pairs of dangly earrings. There was one pair of gold hoops as big around as softballs. I couldn’t remember Grandma ever wearing them, but I recognized them from the picture.

Grandma had several photos wedged in the frame of the mirror: her on a cruise with two girlfriends, my ma during a happy time, Ma and Dad at their wedding, me as a super-cute kindergartner missing all four top front teeth.

There was also a school picture of Grandma as a teenager, smiling, with perfect new braids. The enormous gold hoops dangled from her ears. She had a smile just like Grandma’s, but with mischievous eyes, like you’re about to get in trouble for doing something crazy with her. Not at all like the old Grandma.

I’ve seen the photo a hundred times, but today I slid it out of the mirror-frame in case it had a date on the back. It said:

10th grade, just before everything changed. My favorite picture.

The place where the rings were in the jewelry box was actually a tray you could lift out. Underneath, I expected big necklaces and bracelets, which Grandma liked to wear, but instead, there was a small baby-blue book. On the cover was printed, “I’m one of a kind!” with a picture of a unicorn and a rainbow with real glitter glued on. The edges of the pages were a tarnished gold. The book had one of those brass-colored locks that take a mini-key. All I had to do was jiggle it a little bit and the slider-part of the lock moved out of the slider-holder.

My Grandma’s name was inside the cover in bubbly girl-letters. The first page was blank, but when I turned it over, I saw that same handwriting: September 9th. Thirty-three years ago today. I felt a creep-shiver and looked over my shoulder in case Grandma’s ghost was watching me look at her stuff without permission.

There was no-one else to talk to, she wrote, so she decided to use the blank diary she got on her seventh birthday, even though it was a bit childish.

She said her boyfriend forced her to have sex three days before. She was so depressed that she skipped school for two days and hid at home. Her plan was to do the same for the rest of the year, but her ma caught her and made her go back.

No-one in her family or in her church knew. No-one on her volleyball team knew. She had kept the whole thing to herself. She said she thought she could just put on her “get out of my face” face, and have the feelings in private. But she lost her temper every five minutes, and cried a million times, and bit people’s heads off when they asked her what was wrong.

All she wanted to know was would the feelings ever go away, would she be the girl she was a week ago ever again? Could a boy break you so bad you’d feel dirty for the rest of your life? I did plenty of things I didn’t want with other boys, she wrote, but no-one ever hurt me before. I hate them all.

I wanted so bad to de-read those terrible words. Most of all, though, I wish Grandma never had to write them.

) - - -

) - - - -

When I closed the book, I was all cold and sweaty. Grandma was the solidest person in my life. She didn’t seem broken at all, and she took care of me and my dad when things were at their worst, so she definitely didn’t hate boys.

Saturday — Go Back Home

Every morning, I look in Grandma’s diary, and read what she wrote on that day’s date. Today’s Saturday, and there was no entry for today. It meant I could take a break from the diary without feeling like I didn’t care about Beverly. Beverly: that was Grandma’s name, and it’s what I’m going to call the girl in the diary. It’s what she called herself, and she wasn’t anybody’s grandma yet, obviously.

Grandma and I would go to the library every Saturday. One thing we liked to do was look at the things people were selling on the community bulletin board. We’d imagine buying a boat, even though we were both afraid of the water, or getting a mobile home for vacations. Grandma used to laugh and say, “That thing would cost about a thousand of my wallets."

Today, right there on the bulletin board was a large postcard.

ARE YOU BETWEEN 14 AND 20?

HAVE YOU OR SOMEONE YOU LOVE BEEN SEXUALLY ASSAULTED?

DO YOU NEED A SAFE, SUPPORTIVE, AND POSITIVE PLACE TO TALK?

The group only happens once a month, and it was this afternoon. Maybe Grandma’s spirit had sent me some people who would understand all the sadness I was having about what I learned about her.

My dad was working all day, so I went. The group meets in the basement of the Rape Crisis Center, which is a couple blocks out of town on River Street. Because of the crisis word, I was worried about trauma patients everywhere, and hospital smells, but it’s just a converted old house. Instead of stairs to get to the door, it features a mile-long wheelchair ramp with two 180s in it.

The lady behind the desk was young and very goth-appearing. She put down her book and frowned at me: not angry; more like I was a mystery. I could see a wheelchair headrest behind blue hair, and she had a button that said “Survivor and Ally". Do people really attack ladies in wheelchairs?

“I’m here for the group for people…14 to 20,” I said. No way was I saying the word rape to a girl.

“Oh. Okay. It’s starting in about…two minutes. Follow me."

She glided back from the desk, pivoted, and battery-rolled down the sunlit hall. I couldn’t budge. Following her meant I would be all the way in the Rape Crisis Center.

At the end of the hall, she pushed the button for the elevator. The door opened instantly with a ding.

“Well, come on!” she smiled, and my body walked toward her. “Just hit Basement. X_____ is down there with the others.” When I didn’t get in the elevator, she said, “Is this your first time?"

“Yeah,” I said. “Do I need to fill out an application form or something? Cuz I could come back later."

“No, the group is drop-in. It’s a slightly different bunch every time, but you’ll see lots of familiar faces if you come regularly."

“NO!” shouted about ten voices at once.

I whipped around. In the wall behind me was a window into a classroom where a group of women was practicing Jackie-Chan moves with their backs to me. With the door closed, you couldn’t hear anything at all. Then everyone spun, blocked an invisible punch with their left arms, and punched straight ahead with their right fists. “NO!” shook out through the walls again.

I looked back at the Goth receptionist.

“It’ll be alright,” she said. “You’ll like X_____; she gets it about feeling awkward after what you’ve been through. Listen, I’m sorry I gave you the evil eye before."

“You don’t get a ton of boys, I guess?"

“You’re the first.” She eyed me for a second, then said, “That takes guts.” I felt like all my guts were somewhere else.

Her wheels spun in opposite directions for a sec, and I watched her roll back to the desk.

It had to be the world’s slowest elevator. It only went probably fifteen feet, but it took most of a minute. Then the door opened with a bone-rattling cling.

Everyone turned to look at me. It was a circle of seven girls and a 20-looking woman who I figured was the leader. I didn’t recognize anybody, which was good for feeling anonymous, but bad because I wanted K_____ to be there in case my Grandma’s story would help her. They stared. I might as well have snuck into the Ladies on a dare.

“Are you here for the Sexual Assault Support Group?” the grownup said.

“Yes. But not for me!” I didn’t want them to get the wrong idea. “My grandmother was raped."

“Come in and have a seat. I’m X_____. We’ll go around in a minute and share a little about ourselves."

There were five empty chairs, including the three closest to me. I sat in the middle one so I wouldn’t be right next to any of the girls. My back was to the elevator, so I couldn’t calculate the escape-distance over and over.

“Okay, let’s get started,” X_____ said a minute later. “Welcome, all my beautiful, strong young women — and young man."

All the girls group-examined me again up and down. I sat up straight and closed my legs from how I normally sit. I could feel prickle-sweat on my back.

“We’ve all made it through another month,” X______ smiled. “And I am really glad to see you.” She looked each person in the eyes for at least three seconds. That is a long time to have a grown woman who’s not a teacher or a relative stare in your eyes.

Behind me, there was another ding, and X_____ looked at the elevator. “Hi, K_____! Come on in, we’re just getting started."

“Sorry I’m late, everybody. I got my license on Wednesday — yay! — so I drove here myself, but I’m really slow."

People said hi and congratulations while K____ moved across the circle to an empty seat. She was too distracted by jacket management to notice me. My heart was beating in that emergency way when you’re pretty sure you’re going to die.

X_____ suggested we all go around and say our names and how we were doing since last month’s meeting.

“Remember: what is said here does not leave this room.” She only looked at me this time, and I nodded, hotly embarrassed. “This is a safe place where it’s okay to say things we can’t say elsewhere."

We went around the circle, and thankfully, it wouldn’t be my turn until like six girls had gone. But K______ was third. By then she had spotted me.

“I’m not saying anything while he’s here.” She threw two knife-looks straight at me.

“Why not?” X_____ said.

“I don’t trust him."

“Boys are welcome in the group, too, K_____. They need support, too."

“It’s not because he’s a boy. He’s just here to spy on me and tell everyone at school."

“You don’t feel safe, in other words."

“Ya think?” K_____ shot back.

“Alright,” X_____ said. “Why don’t you go last. Once we’ve all said intros at whatever level we feel comfortable, we’ll decide what to do next. Deal?"

“Fine,” said K_____, and a few other girls nodded, too.

Except for X______ and K______, I was last. When it was my turn, my mind was blank. I should have been planning what to say instead of listening to the girls.

“I saw the announcement about the group,” I croaked out, and one girl handed me a mini-cup of water from the table behind her. I drank it slowly, knowing everybody was suspicious of me after what K_____ said. Like when you feel like a shoplifter for no reason when they follow you around in a store.

“This can be hard your first time,” X_____ sympathized. “Start with your name, okay?"

I froze. I didn’t want to say my name in a rape victim group. It felt like it would make me a part of their club. And no offense, but it was about the worst club you could be in.

I stared around at all the different girl-shoes, breathing the new carpet. When I looked up, some girls were watching me, and a couple stared at the floor or their nails. I couldn’t look K_____ in the eye, which made me feel even more like a spy.

“You have to introduce yourself if you want to stay,” X______ said gently. “It’s one of the ways we can support you. Knowing who you are helps us remind you of the parts of you that are strong, and thriving, even when you feel the opposite. Otherwise, I have to ask you to leave. Maybe talking to someone on the hotline would be better? Those calls are anonymous."

“Do people really come to the group just to hear gossip and tell other people your secrets about getting raped?” I asked.

“Tell us your name, okay?"

“Before I fucking light you up,” K_____ said, and the leader gave her a stern look. “What?!” she said. “He’s got no reason to be here. I don’t feel safe,” she mocked.

“I’m Wendell,” I blurted out. “My grandmother got raped. When she was sixteen. She died last week and I read her diary. She wrote all about it and how she wondered if she’d ever be a normal person again. Lots of people made her feel guilty for being a victim. And then some complete stranger would say something that really helped her not feel bad for being a victim."

Both times I said the word victim, there was a murmur around the circle; the first one I barely registered, but the second time, I heard everyone say survivor, almost automatically.

“We don’t call people who have been sexually assaulted victims, Wendell,” X_____ said. “That’s how our abusers think of us. Here, we emphasize that whatever happened, we survived. Surviving was the first thing we did to hold onto what the perpetrator tried to take from us."

“I’m sorry I said victim. I don’t think I belong here. It’s not something I really understand."

“I think you’re probably right. This group is for survivors and their allies."

“But I care about what happened to her."

I meant my grandma, but I looked right at K_____ by mistake. She rolled her eyes and tilted her chair back on two legs, checking her phone.

“I can tell you care,” X______ went on. “Keep caring, Wendell. It might help to talk to a school counselor or a therapist about the confusing feelings you’re having.” She stood and handed me a business card. “Call if you want help finding someone who’s got experience working with teenagers around sexual assault."

I felt the raised letters with my thumb while I banged into a couple of chairs getting out of the circle. When I got in the elevator, I saw K______ glance up from her phone.

Her expression punctured me until the door finally slid to my protection.

Monday — Leaning Back

At our school, it’s open lunch. You get 35 minutes to get to the cafeteria, eat, do any hanging you want to do with your friends, and get back in time for fifth period.

Today, I went straight outside into a warm day for September. I didn’t drop my books off at my locker or grab any food. It would take a minute for Des and Halen to figure out I wasn’t just late getting to the cafeteria. I wanted a few minutes to myself.

I headed for the giant beech tree. We’ve studied that tree in science like eight times since first grade. It’s a hundred and twenty years old with ground-drooping branches, so even blowing snow doesn’t ever reach the trunk. It gives so much weather-protection that a couple dozen kids, easy, can escape the heat or the rain underneath it.

I sat down and felt embarrassed for the millionth time about the Rape Crisis Center yesterday. I wonder if I have a special kind of battery in me that stores stupid ideas instead of electricity.

I couldn’t help crying about Grandma. The only people who might see me were a few cosplayers on the other side of the massive trunk doing sword-menacing poses from fantasy books. They were basically in their own universe.

I stopped crying after a few minutes, which was good because Halen and Des found me right away. My best friends are both cool, but in different ways. Halen is kind of wimpy — he cries about something at school every year it seems like, and he can’t stand even a little physical pain. But he pays attention and tells you if he doesn’t understand. Most people just say you don’t make any sense and leave it at that.

Des, on the other hand, is tough, but he hangs with us because he doesn’t need tough friends. Something about him is so solid that nobody disrespects him. Jocks, student government nerds, theatre kids. The girls like him because he never stabs them with mini-insults to make them feel bad about themselves. Grandma said his moms did a good job.

“What the fuck is up?” Des said, then lay down on the ground with his hands folded under his head.

“Give him a minute, D,” Halen said. “Obviously something big is going on."

“Good point,” Des said. “So, Wendell, what the fuck is up?"

“I didn’t actually think K_____ would be there,” I said. “All I did was look like a fool in front of a room full of girls — and piss her off."

“You in a room full of girls?!” Des said. “That’s a step in a new direction. Details."

“Tell me you didn’t go over her house,” Halen added, already embarrassed for me.

“God, no,” I said. He had actually thought of something that would have been worse. “But at least her parents would have made her be nice to me."

Des broke a muffin from his lunch in two. Half he handed to me; half went to Halen. Des is like that. Grandma said his moms did a good job.

I told them about the Rape Crisis Center, and they winced at all the right places. They even pointed out a couple things I had forgotten to be embarrassed about.

“How does what happened to K_____ even concern you?” Halen asked. “It’s sad, but it’s not like you did it, or could’ve stopped it. She’s not your friend."

“I didn’t want her to feel alone, I guess.” I was thinking of my grandma’s teen-girl sadness. “I wanted her to know everyone isn’t against her."

“You realize how pathetic that sounds, right?” Des said. “K_____ is 1) a senior; 2) not close to you in any way; and 3) she probably wants everyone to forget about what happened, so she can get on with her life. Imagine if some random seventh-grader came up to you in three months and said, Hey, Wendell, I’m sorry your grandmother died. I care about you."

“What’s wrong with that?” Halen said. “I’d do that. And I am, too, Wendell: sorry your Grandma died."

“So what’s different about what I did?” I said.

“Well, when somebody dies, it isn’t their fault,” Halen explained. “It just happens."

“Unless they kill themselves,” Des added.

“Whatever, Des,” Halen went on. “Usually, dying isn’t their fault. Everybody agrees that it’s sad. But who knows what really happened with K_____ and Derek?"

“She does, I think,” I tried. “Plus, she’s doing things a lot of survivors do. I looked on the internet — “

“ — And the internet is always right, let’s remember,” Des interrupted. He’s always suspicious of online facts.

“There’s lists of common coping behaviors that people have noticed with survivors of sexual assault."

“Survivors makes it sound so life-and-death.” Des was frowning.

“It is, sometimes,” I said. “Unless you can feel safe again. Have you noticed how K_____ is wearing big baggy clothes? How she has a super-short temper? How she’s exhausted all the time? She probably can’t sleep. Some survivors have nightmares for decades."

“Seriously?” Halen asked.

“Still,” Des went on, “you don’t know if he attacked her, or she just changed her mind, or maybe he was mean after they did it. There’s no way of telling."

“But if she says something bad happened, and he says nothing bad happened, doesn’t that mean something was wrong with it?"

Halen said, “It would explain why is K_____ is so miserable and Derek is so happy."

“The cops just said he won’t go to trial,” Des explained. “That would make me happy."

“But it’s not that kind of happy,” Halen said. “It’s mean-happy. And K_____ isn’t just normal bummed out; she’s…fragile or something."

“It could be anything."

“What about E_____, last year?” I couldn’t believe Des wasn’t seeing it.

“Wendell, we weren’t even in this building last year,” Halen said. “We can’t prove anything for sure; you may both be partially right."

Halen always wants to find the common ground, even when people disagree. At that moment, it was over-annoying.

“Although, if you were a rapist, you’d do it so girls wouldn’t have proof. Any criminal does their best to limit their evidentiary exposure. Known fact.” Des loves crime shows. “So, let’s say K_____’s telling the truth."

“I already did,” I said.

“Dick,” Des said, and the bell rang for us to go back inside.

Tuesday — Her Back to Me

In study hall, K_____ was across the library, reading with her back to me. I started feeling sad for the six girls who did their check-ins before I got kicked out of the Rape Crisis Center.

Looking around the circle, I had thought, All these girls would never sit together at school. They have nothing in common. Except they did.

Each girl said her name and something about how they were doing if they wanted to. X______ must have cast some okayness-spell, because they all wanted to. A_____ was doing good. It was one year to the day since she was raped, and she didn’t fall apart at school like she expected. S_____ said her parents, who don’t know what happened, invited her uncle over for a family barbecue. She walked out into her back yard and saw him talking to her ma and started hitting him and screaming for him to get out. R_____ had a flat voice, and was new, like me. She said she was attacked by two boys last month, and then cried for five minutes straight. She finally shared that her sister had killed herself after being assaulted in college, like ten years ago. If her sister had survived, maybe they could have helped each other get out of bed in the morning. W_____ said it was the first time she had left the house in three days.

“I hate coming to this group,” she said. A few girls laughed kindly. “I wouldn’t if I could find anywhere else where I feel sane.” She turned to another girl and said, “If it wasn’t for you, I never would have heard about this group."

The girl leaned over and hugged her, and said, “You’re my hero."

The worst for me was this girl who got red-raw eyes from rubbing while she told about calling for help after her boss left her on the side of the road. I could never be a 911 operator.

Some of the girls had their arms wrapped around their bodies, like they couldn’t get warm. Some looked like if they had a knife, they would stab you, or themself, it didn’t matter which as long as someone was bleeding. One girl I couldn’t even hear because she spoke so low, but I nodded along with everyone else, anyway.

“Stop staring at me.” I jumped. K____’s voice was hot on my ear. I hadn’t seen her come up behind me, but now I felt her knuckles dig into my back where she gripped the chair. “Or I will fucking rip your dick off and feed it to my ferret."

I wanted to say sorry, but I was too scared. K_____ was seeming like the if-I-only-had-a-knife type of survivor. I sat tree-still. My nuts felt all prickly from terror. She pushed the back of my head to knock it forward a little and walked back to her seat.

Staring down at my notebook, I thought how hard being near a survivor was. It was just as confusing as being around the other kinds of really bad I could remember. Seeing my ma handcuffed to the hospital bed before she was healthy enough for jail. Seeing my dad on visiting days when he was locked up. Spying on Grandma after bedtime while she looked through the photo album, drinking a glass of wine and giving advice to everybody in the pictures about how to do things just a little better.

Wednesday — Taken Aback

I went to school early to shoot baskets in the gym before school. I like the rhythm of it, but I never move enough to get sweaty. K_____ startled me by calling my name and waving me over to her. She kind of sagged as though it was the end of a really long day, and not before anything had happened yet. I didn’t like how I felt standing near her with so much open space around me, so I leaned against the cabinets where sport-things get stored.

K_____ apologized for threatening me. “I don’t hate you,” she added. “I just don’t want to be around you."

“But I want to help,” I said, which I had practiced just in case I got this exact opportunity. “I care about what happened to you."

“You don’t even know what happened to me!” She glanced sideways for a minute while her thoughts clicked into place. “Remember when X____ said to keep caring? If you truly care about me, you’ll respect what I say I need. Can’t you see it’s not even me you care about? You hate what happened to your nana. I get that. It’s just not the same thing."

“Maybe you’re just scared to — ” I began, but before I could tell her what she was scared of, she slammed me against the lockers. A white girl hadn’t ever been that rough with me, and it felt wrong in every way possible.

“Never fucking tell me what I’m scared of. If you knew how much I’ve been afraid, it would kill you.” She was pressing me into the handle and the padlock of my locker. “You have no. Fucking. Idea."

I was used to Derek threatening me, getting off on making me feel helpless. But what K____ was doing at that moment was different. She looked homicide-angry, like I was exactly one step away from pushing her over the edge. But I could tell it wasn’t about me. If she hurt me, it wouldn’t be to torture me, like the bullies did. Her anger would make her kill me, quickly and without pleasure. She just needed it to end, and would try anything that might end it.

In true Wendell form, I stayed silent. I wasn’t struggling with how to say something, either. I was just paralyzed. I was afraid of her, but I was calm, too. Maybe this is what a deer feels just before the grizzly de-vocal-chords it.

“Say something! Fucking say something, you fucking wuss!"

Before I could make a noise, she said, “Oh, shit,” out of nowhere, and let me go. “That’s his car.” A door to the outside was propped open, and through it, I heard the un-mufflered sound of a car.

Clutching her books and things, K______ ran down the hall and disappeared into the Ladies. I stood there while my breathing and vision returned to normal function.

Derek and his brand-new girlfriend Y_____ walked in from outside. She’s a freshman like me, so I find it really sketchy. They turned the corner toward me, laughing while they walked. Derek had his arm bent nearly all the way around her neck. Her head tilted down at this weird angle toward Derek’s ribs. You would have thought he was choking her, except she had this big smile on her face.

“Hey, fuckball,” he said when he saw me standing there with all my books and papers and things on the floor. “Would you mind picking up your stuff? It makes the halls look crummy.” It’s what the Assistant Principal says about litter.

“Leave him alone, D,” Y_____ said, giggling and unlocking herself from Derek’s clutches. “He’s just a freshman.” She winked at me. Maybe it was for race solidarity, but it just felt humiliating.

She beautifully tossed her beaded braids aside and put her arm low around Derek’s waist. I watched them walked away down the hall, still without my voice. Derek reached back and held up Y____’s miniskirt. She was wearing a thong, and I felt ashamed for not looking away.

“Derek!” Y____ pulled her skirt back down and joke-slapped his giant arm muscles.

When they got to the corner, he turned his head and winked at me. Like I could have it, too. I just had to take it.

“Aww, you know you love it,” I heard him say, though they were out of sight.